In 2016, there were 2,515 students enrolled in the Special Education Needs programme. And yet according to the 2011 census, there were 6,698 people aged 5 to 24, meaning that roughly more than half of the people with special needs who need to be in school are not.
Special Education Needs(SEN) in Mauritius have become an NGO concern. 2 in 3 centres providing SEN education are either entirely run by NGOs or are partly run with their help. Even when NGOs shoulder much of the responsibility of our SEN children, they often find themselves struggling to do so. While they do receive government funding, many NGOs have to add to that sum, often quite significantly. And if they can’t, what then? In that case, children simply do not receive the quality education they are entitled to, all because they are children with disabilities. These children who are already born into the world with a handicap are further disadvantaged by the education system in place. And even the 9-year-schooling plan has no consideration for them despite all the hurdles they face.
One organisation, the Century Welfare Association (CWA) situated in Port Louis, provides SEN services to 58 children with a wide range of mental and physical disabilities. It currently employs 7 teachers, 3 assistants, 2 carers, 2 “eating help” employees, one cleaner as well as a part-time operational therapist. So much trained staff comes at a hefty cost and the CWA has to cut back in order to make ends meet. Limited funds also prevent this NGO from taking other initiatives. For instance, the equipment needed to assist the children cannot be procured and the latter have to do without. The students also miss out on activities they should partake in, like outings. Without the necessary funds or equipment, it can be hard to coordinate such an event. So, like many other NGOs, the CWA has to rely on public contributions to keep the school running. But public contributions are hardly a solid base which to rely on. NGOs are running themselves ragged to provide education to SEN students, and yet, very often, their efforts go unrecognised. Another NGO, “Autrement Capable, Toujours Joyeux” tells us more about this problem in the video below.
The solution then, seems to be simple: either increase funding or create more SEN-integrated units. But while either of these options would help considerably, they are not cure-all solutions. To understand why that is the case, we must look further into the SEN system that is currently operating.
How do SEN children enter SEN education?
SEN children enter SEN services when they are identified as having a mental or physical disability. But according to one teacher at CWA, they are also sent to SEN centres by government psychologists. This can be problematic, as the same teacher points out, because children with mere physical disabilities who could otherwise follow mainstream classes are made to follow SEN curriculum which is not necessarily adapted to them. These children do not make up a negligible minority either. Up to 237 children with physical disabilities were enrolled in the SEN programme in 2016.
Again, this proves to be problematic as the SEN curriculum does not involve any kind of exams. Mauritius being very results-oriented, being placed in a SEN facility can sometimes do more harm than good to some students.
What happens after SEN school?
There isn’t really an “end” to SEN schools. Special education is not marked by specific achievements expected at regular intervals. It tends to be more of a continuous process. However, NGOs stop receiving funding for students aged over 20. And in 2016, there were 78 students aged 20 and 155 students over 21, again not insignificant numbers when charted against the total number of students enrolled in the SEN system.
This is also part of the reason why NGOs struggle so much with finances, because they do not necessarily stop providing education past that age limit. But it is not without good reason that these organisations do so. Life after SEN school is not always bright for SEN children and it can be hard for them to advance in life in spite of the systems that have been established to support them. The Training Employment of Disabled Persons Board (TEDPB) is one such system, but parents of SEN children and even the TEDPB itself report that the system has not been working like it should.
From the parents’ and the children’s perspectives, the system is faulty as it does not accept everyone who is willing to be a participant in the initiative. There is an evaluation process that is carried out where the degree of disability is assessed, and this means that there are many who do not make the cut. For these people, there is no way out. They are too old for SEN schools —and if not for the generosity of NGOs— might be made to leave, and are not “able” enough to be accepted for training or a job. This phenomenon is not as exceptional as one might think it is: at the CWA alone, out of the 58 children they teach, 15 are over 20. But if these children were to be sent home, this would prove to be hugely detrimental to them. Many of them would unlearn all the things they had been taught over their years. They would also lose their main source of socialisation, living an isolated, unfulfilling life. So NGOs, knowing that these students face such a fate, cannot in all conscience let go of them.
But it is not surprising that so many young adults with disabilities should be unemployed. The TEDPB itself has admitted that many employers who have over 35 employees break the law because 3% of their workforce is not made up of disabled people. While the TEDPB is reportedly trying to right these wrongs, the situation at the moment remains the same: Special Education Needs are dispensed mostly by NGOs, NGOs are underfunded and the hopes of living a somewhat normal life for SEN children are fragile.
How long will NGOs hold out? And how long will the government continue to treat SEN children like second-class citizens?
By Aadilah Soobratty, Johann Bissessur & Jaya Bhujun
(submitted as part of assignment for the module Digital Journalism)